Three Feminists Talk About The Media’s Obsession With Unwed Black Women

There's a lucrative industry devoted to saying that something's wrong with black women. Here's what we should be talking about instead.

By Jamilah King, Noelle de la Paz Oct 31, 2011

To hear comedian Steve Harvey tell it, black women have a problem. Too many are single, Harvey says, and it’s reaching epic proportions.  So he’s set out to fix this imaginary problem with a string of self-help seminars and romance advice books.

Sadly, Harvey isn’t alone in his fanaticism. He’s just one of many people, including mainstream news outlets, academic researchers, and even some black women who’ve jumped on the patriarchal bandwagon, wagged their finger, and asked "Why aren’t black woman getting married?"

But rarely does anyone ask black women what they think. So we did. We reached out to three brilliant, self-identified black feminists to get their take on the media’s obsession with who black women choose to love, and how. What follows is a candid, hilarious and insightful part of the conversation on black love that we don’t often to get to hear.

Joan Morgan is an award-winning writer, journalist and author of "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist."

On the media’s obsession with unwed black women:

I think we’re at a point where there’s literally been a commercial commodification of black women’s expressions of pain or loneliness. Those are very real, if not always racially specific, difficulties that we’re having navigating relationships.

This whole industry is approached from the idea that there’s something wrong with black women and that we need to be fixed. And even more offensively, "I can provide you the solution for that." Is Steve Harvey really the guy you wanna end up with? Like, truly, is that your ideal?

This is not My Fair Lady.  I’m just trying to really not slip into the full range of expression for what a bunch of bloody fuckery I think it is.

On the need to revisit the institution of marriage:

We don’t really seem to analyze the fact that marriage is a complicated institution as it exists in the 21st Century precisely because it was never designed historically to be about romantic love. It was very financially based, and church-based. It fed the church’s need to consistently support and reproduce itself. Maybe the question is not "Why can’t I get married?" but "Does marriage, in the way that it exists, with no revision possible, fulfill who we are in the 21st Century?" Or is there another way to form productive long-lasting meaningful relationships?

And how can we do that without demonizing women who are single, or mothers who are single, so we don’t see "No Marriage,  No Womb"?

None of these brothers are thinking like that. At all. They just reinforce all of these really ridiculous and very patriarchal notions that basically say the job in the relationship is for the woman to fix herself and become what the man wants. And keep adjusting and fixing herself so she continues to be what’s desired — without ever really asking the reasons of his own shortcomings, basically, or their own contributions in the ways that our relationships struggle.

On what we should talk about instead:

I’m not really big on relationship advice, I don’t think that’s my strong point. But I do think there is an issue with, you know, if you’re intimate with somebody, you deserve a conversation. You don’t deserve to go back and forth in these long exchanges via text messages or via Facebook. There is something to be said about being able to look into someone’s eyes, and say what you have to say. And be able to receive what they have to say.

I think that we shouldn’t shortchange ourselves on our expectation of communication. We shouldn’t shortchange the communication within ourselves and our partners in these ways that undercut human connection. And then I think you just have to listen. In a multitasking world it becomes very difficult to really be fully engaged and present. Listen. And I mean listen and not be formulating your counterargument while the other person is speaking. I mean, really be present.

Jamilah Lemieux is a writer and founder of the The Beautiful Struggler.

On the persistence of black pathology narratives:

I think that, well basically anything that’s gonna get website clicks and sell magazines and get viewers, the media’s gonna take advantage of that. I don’t think it’s necessarily deliberately malicious so much as it’s simply opportunist. If black women were not buying the Steve Harvey book, if we weren’t tuning into these specials, if there was no audience for this–and its not just a black female audience, obviously–but if there was no audience there would be no conversation.

But at the same time, black pathology narratives tend to sell. And just the concept of some inherent black deficiency has always been profitable.

So I think that the "tragic, unwed, unlovable black woman" is just a fad right now. It’s just an extension of the many stereotypes that there have been historically about black women: the Jezebel, the mammy.

I think it’s in part in reaction to the current First Family. We have three generations of happy black women living in one house. You have a First Lady who’s beautiful and glamorous and is who is not only a force in her own right but supported and admired by the leader of the free world. And I think that image makes some people very uncomfortable.

On black women leading the conversation:

These are conversations that need to be held in our homes, in our friend circles, in our churches, and also in our media. So that’s your Colorlines, your Essence, your Ebony, your Clutch, your blogs. We have public communal spaces in which to have these conversations and I think a big challenge is finding ways to have  these them without allowing anyone with a voice to be anointed as an expert. We’ve allowed a comedian with a history of infidelity and "failed marriages" to be our relationship guru. We should instead be focused on having a conversation, as opposed to looking for a savior or a diagnosis.

Susana Morris is co-editor of The Crunk Feminist Collective.

On how intimacy and sexuality change over a lifetime:

I think that not only do we get over this notion that black women are deviant or pathological, but also I’d be interested in seeing just the ways in which black women themselves are engaging intimacy at different stages in our lives. You know, it looks different in your teens versus your 20s, versus your 30s. We need more really frank, pro-sex conversations that are not simply focused on marriage, but, what are my support systems like? How am I rebuking this notion of the "strong black woman"?

I hate that these discourses are so heteronormative. There are lots of queer sisters out there who are engaging in intimacy. What can all of us learn from one another?

On Living Single — Or Not:

One of the Crunk Feminists posts that was most popular earlier this year was a post that talked about how we need to re-think how society is trying to make couples the standard, and what that might mean for someone who is not in a committed, monogamous sexual relationship. And how real people on the street are enacting support. I mean, that was a really popular post and when I saw it go up I thought, "Okay, we’re gonna get some backlash because people are gonna be like, ‘No what we really want is traditional marriage.’" But so many of the comments were, "You really spoke to my condition," "This is what I’m experiencing," "Me and my homegirls were talking about how we’re all gonna live together and support one another," or "I’m engaging in polyamory and rejecting monogamous relationships," or "I’m holding off on dating because I’m trying to finish my PhD." There were so many ways in which people were responding and saying, "Actually, the discourse that’s out there, folks just moaning and bemoaning being unmarried, is not the only discourse. We’re really talking about lots of different things in our communities."